Major General Marcia Anderson joined the military by accident 35 years ago, when she signed up for a Reserve Officer Training Corps class because she needed a science credit as a student at Creighton University.

She decided to make it her career roughly eight years later, after an incident illustrated to her how much the military needed more female leaders.

Then a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, Anderson was walking one day on a military base with two senior male officers. They passed a group of six female soldiers, and the young women "caught sight of me and their faces lit up. They saluted me as if those two guys were not there." After the two men joked about being "chopped liver," Anderson realized she should stay. "I needed to motivate more women to follow the same course."

That course ultimately led Anderson to become the U.S. Army's first African American female two-star general. A lawyer by training who is on leave from the United States Courts, where she serves as the Clerk of Bankruptcy Court in the Western District of Wisconsin, Anderson is also the Army's most senior-ranking African American woman. Her responsibilities for the Army Reserve, where more than 40 percent of soldiers are minorities and nearly 23 percent are women, include developing professional training and leadership programs.

Anderson's remarks on her career and women in the military were part of a call with reporters Tuesday, organized on behalf of the Army Reserve, following recognition Anderson received at a Spelman College leadership event. During the call, Anderson spoke about the challenges for women's advancement in the military, the sexual assault crisis in the armed forces, and even recent controversial grooming guidelines for African American women.

Anderson grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, a town she says was 95 percent African American and where, as a child, the median income was $11,000. She recognized her experience in an all-girls Catholic high school as one that made it easier for her to join the military. "When you're in that environment, you're not constrained with the same pressures you might find in a co-ed environment," she said.

She says holding herself to high ethical standards — even higher than what was required — helped her prove herself and progress in her career. She learned to fight gender biases about being too assertive or opinionated not by holding back, but by being strategic about how she spoke up. When she had something critical to say, "I'd go see that individual before a meeting, and say 'here's why I'm saying it.' I would get their buy-in and their support."

One time she spoke her mind recently was in response to the flap over regulations about hairstyles for African American female troops. She says she personally involved herself after the guidelines were issued, going to the personnel officers and sharing stories about her hair falling out after years of using relaxers and having to take steroids for treatment. (The guidelines banned some natural hairstyles for African American women, prompting claims of racial bias.) She says the official convened a group that has led to "changes in the works to update a more inclusive approach to grooming."

Currently, women make up 15.7 percent of the U.S. Army — a figure that Anderson says "basically has not changed since 2002. We need to start thinking about how to fix this." About 16 percent of the officer corps and just seven percent of top generals and admirals across the armed forces are women, according to a 2013 report.

Anderson says that opening up combat positions should help bring more women into top leadership roles. "It has some parallels to business," she said. "If you look at major corporations, people who rise to senior leadership positions are not from the soft skill areas," but from the profit and loss part of the operation. "The same is true for the military. Our parallel would be combat leaders."

She also spoke about the lack of a formal mentoring program, and how critical such a program is for more women to get ahead. "We talk about mentoring in the military, but don’t have a formal approach to it," she said. Leaders in the military need to "get outside their own personal comfort zone. It's important for us to start talking about mentors making themselves uncomfortable, because they’re going to learn something too."

Finally, Anderson offered her thoughts on the sexual assault epidemic in the military. She says the problem is a reflection of broader U.S. culture. "We’re recruiting those same high school boys and college young men who are also committing sexual assault" outside of the military, she said. "We talk a lot about culture and ethics and respect, but it's going to be hard for us to undo 18 years of conditioning. We need to have a larger conversation in this country."

Still, Anderson concedes that getting to greater parity in armed forces leadership will help change the culture, too. She'd like to see the Army one day become 40 percent or even 50 percent women. "We need critical mass," Anderson says. "If we stay at 15 percent the institution and the culture will not change."

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